Robots go from desert to jungle in new Navy lab

WASHINGTON – There’s a swimming pool, a giant sandbox, a climbing wall, a jungle adventure room and wide open spaces to run wild.

While it might sound like a great place to take the kids, it’s actually the Naval Research Laboratory’s new lab for the development of autonomous robots – which on their best days, often seem to operate on the level of small, make that very small, children.

Researchers last month began moving into the 50,000-square-foot Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research, or LASR. The point of the new facility is its simulated operational environments that will allow them to design and build their robots just down the hallway from towering rooms where they can try them out.

“This building is designed to be a stepping stone between the laboratory and field testing,” said Glen Henshaw, a space roboticist who led journalists on a tour Monday. Instead of waiting months for pricy field testing that could reveal unforeseen flaws, researchers now can make daily forays if needed into the simulated environments to make sure their work translates to the real world.

The environments include a desert environment where researchers can whip up a sandstorm, a pool that will have a wave generator for testing in a simulated coastal environment, and a dense tropical rainforest where massive downpours will test waterproofing to the limits.

The environments aim for accuracy, said Henshaw, who helped develop the simulated rainforest. It features real Southeast Asian plants of the sort that a team of tiny autonomous robots – a current trend in Defense Department-funded robotics research – might someday crawl or fly among in an Asian conflict.

“If you’re designing a robot that’s going to climb out on a real branch, you need to test it on a real branch, not a plastic one,” Henshaw said.

Outdoor environments aren’t all the facility has to offer. In one huge bay – large enough for testing small unmanned aerial vehicles and capable of being flooded to simulate a swamp – a gleaming white research robot called Octavia, with large, expressive eyes, rolled through a mockup of a section of a Navy ship.

With a mixture of gestures and language, a scientist directed the robot toward a real fire burning in a simulated storeroom. Octavia hesitated, wheeled around and stared at the fire. None of its actions, NRL roboticist Greg Trafton stressed, had been preprogrammed.

“Things that are very, very easy for you and I – like navigating down a hall or seeing the fire – are quite difficult for robots,” he said.

Finally, Octavia did something a toddler couldn’t have done. It raised a wand connected to a firefighting backpack and hosed down the flames – a seemingly simple action with mindbendingly complex science behind it.

Researchers hope that the fancy new lab will mean more opportunities than ever for Octavia and other autonomous robots to practice laboratory feats that could one day make them useful for real-world work.


Robots at the Naval Research Laboratory

At the Naval Research Laboratory's new lab for the development of autonomous robots, researchers will be able to design and build their robots just down the hallway from towering rooms where they can try them out.


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